In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills

So much beauty, so much sorrow (Manhattan to Mubaro, Rwanda 2000/1994; Atlanta 1960s, other intervening years/locales; epilogue 2004): In exquisite, sorrowful prose, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is wrenching historical fiction that cries out, sings, lingers to express what’s essentially inexpressible. And yet, it has a spiritual soul that uplifts us.

America recently named its newest Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, whose poetry “powerfully connects us to the earth and the spiritual world with direct, inventive lyricism that helps us reimagine who we are.” The same can be said of Jennifer’s Haupt’s searing lyrical prose, depicting characters and a tortured nation “hoping that mankind’s capacity for love is greater than the history of their deeds.”

How can a work of fiction be so beautiful when it’s drawn from the “unfathomable loss” of horrific crimes against humanity? How can its characters find “peaceful stillness” and purpose amongst so much “secret sadness”? In 1994 Rwanda, nearly 1 million people were slaughtered, raped (“rape is a powerful weapon of war throughout Africa”), and tortured. All in less than 100 days, pitting neighbor against neighbor, the majority group, Hutu, against the minority group Tutsi. How to reconcile the Rwandan genocide in a country famed for its endangered mountain gorillas, who tenderly care for their babies, when its people inhumanly deserted theirs?

“Dedicated to everyone searching for amahoro” – which means peace in one of Rwanda’s national languages, Kinyarwanda – peace and healing are what Haupt’s story is about. Just like Rwanda’s Tutsi president, Paul Kagame, who has been “stirring hope with his talk about reconciliation and forgiveness” since 2000, when the novel opens.

It’s in this sense that Rwanda’s past and present struggles with its brutal history serve as a universal, contemporary tale for people all around the world seeking peace and reconciliation. Seeking answers is also what the journalist-turned-author was doing when she spent a month in Rwanda twelve years after the genocide to “explore the connections between forgiveness and grief.” She returned with the “bones of a novel,” and something much deeper than that.

You don’t have to read Haupt’s illuminating piece in Psychology Today, in which she describes how the two weeks she spent traveling through remote mountain villages at the foothills of the Virunga Mountains in the Rift Valley, to understand how profoundly personal her connection to the genocide was. She’d visited Germany’s Dachau concentration camp years earlier, but it wasn’t until she witnessed up-close the magnitude of the aftermath of Rwanda’s atrocities that her soul was deeply affected. You don’t have to read the article because her soulful prose and characters tell us that.

Peace is what all the good characters want. Henry Shepherd is the one who brings them all together and connects them, yet he’s nowhere to be found except in memories and revelations by the others. His disappearance is a mystery, driving the plot.

In 2000 Manhattan, Henry’s married daughter Rachel, 33, is searching for him, for answers. Why did he abandon her at eight and her mother Merilee? Her mother’s recent death to a long-suffering illness has sparked a renewed, more desperate search than earlier attempts.

Bedridden for four difficult months to prevent a second miscarriage, pregnant Rachel has plenty of time to think about and yearn for her father, so at least one grandparent will get to know her child, whom she’s already named and bonded with. Grief and sorrow lead her to finally open a box of her mother’s things, which include an arresting picture her father, a photographer, took of a young woman inside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta in the mid-sixties, during the height of the civil rights movement.

That angelic image – “slivers of gold and purple light from a stained glass window falling around her like an exploding meteor” – was captured against the backdrop of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the pulpit. The photo launched her father’s career when it appeared (fictionally) on the cover of Life magazine in April 1968 (see the real one), after the spiritual leader was gunned down. The assassination of a man who led us to the mountaintop shocked the nation, still does. His booming voice wails today, as we’re still caught between dreaming or giving up.

Lillian Carlson is one of the dreamers, inspired by King to “help change the world.” Her name was written on the back of that life-changing photo. Why did Henry keep updating Lillian’s phone number so many years after he shot the image? Thanks to the early days of the Internet, Rachel learns Lillian doesn’t live in Atlanta anymore but in a mountain village in Rwanda, where she farms and mothers orphaned children who lost their families in the genocide.

The children are Lillian’s “saving grace.” Meanwhile she’s saved forty-eight children over decades. In 2000, four call Lillian’s home, the orphanage, their home. Named Kwizera, meaning Hope, Faith, Believe, it sits in the those shadowy “tiered foothills ribboned with banana trees” at the base of mountains that protect awe-inspiring wildlife like those gorillas Henry also photographed. The same gorillas and mountains legendary Dian Fossey of Gorillas in the Midst studied and lived among. Murdered in a cabin in those mountains with the same gruesome genocide weapon, a machete, her death is another piercing, cruel, senseless tragedy.

In addition to the four young orphaned children, there’s an older one, Nadine, with her own horrifying past. Away on a music scholarship at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, she comes home for the holidays when Rachel shows up at Lillian’s doorstep. Rachel assumed the invitation she received, after several back and forth emails explaining she was looking for her father, was written by Lillian, but it wasn’t. Daniel Tucker sent it.

Daniel has a heart of gold. He’s been living on and off with Lillian and the children for the past seven years, when he’s not working at a clinic in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, caring for orphans. By the time he picks Rachel up at the Nairobi airport, over one hundred pages have unfolded about Lillian’s connection to Henry, therefore Rachel’s.

On the journey to Murabo, to Lillian, Rachel observes Daniel has the “hands of a surgeon in a war zone,” cluing us in to his doctoring story and why once he came to Rwanda on a UCLA medical internship volunteering for the Red Cross he never left. Rachel also notices his “eyes are a soft green. Sad.” He, like the others, hides his sadness, “love and loss,” which connect him to one of the four children at the orphanage: delightful seven-year-old Rosie who has her own challenges. Daniel’s deep attachment to Rosie tells us everything about his capacity for love and commitment.

Rachel is greeted by a very cool Lillian, who remains a “Lady of Steel” towards her for much of the novel. Perplexing to Rachel since since gives so much to the others, including the “genocide widows.” The reader will figure out why it’s so hard for Lillian to let her in.

The unfolding of characters’ stories and strength is life-affirming as they bond over shared grief. Their “reverence for the natural beauty that cannot be destroyed,” also offers hope.

What will it take for our country to feel connected to each other? To find purpose like Haupt’s characters find in spite of everything that’s happened? There’s an answer in those shadowy hills.


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More News Tomorrow

A family digs into an unsolved murder 67 years later, unearthing more than they/we imagined (Washington, DC 2008 back to 1941 northern Wisconsin): Imagination dominates More News Tomorrow, Susan Richards Shreve’s cunning fifteenth novel. Dropping seductive literary breadcrumbs bit by bit, the reader is drawn into an elusive, gothic-like tale larger than what we imagined it to be: a murder mystery.

Imaginative is one way to describe the captivating, unconventional life and career of the daring main character, Georgianna Grove. A cultural anthropology professor noted for studying the Baos tribe of Botswana, her doctoral thesis examined what it means to “sacrifice individual needs in order to belong to a larger whole.” A feisty woman who walks the talk, she imagined and created a home that honored her premise “to make a home, you need a tribe.”

After her husband was killed in Vietnam, Georgie purchased the defunct Home for the Incurables in Washington, DC believing “if we were to gather people together who do not belong to each other, wouldn’t that be an act of hope”? A young widow with two children and one on the way – Nicholas, Rosie, Venus – she raised them along with “89 strangers since 1968.” Shreve reinvents this historical home, which reinvented itself multiple times over a century.

Just as the anthropologist’s aim is to “peel away the layers of the past,” Georgie’s story – the plot – is aimed at uncovering the truth about what really happened in 1941 when her mother Josie was murdered in a remote boy’s camp in the wilds of northern Wisconsin. Run by her father William, he confessed to the crime, died in prison four years later.

As that eerie story dramatically unfolds, another gradually peels away hidden layers from a different past – racial, anti-Semitic, and immigrant animus – we can imagine triggered violence in the forties, and has had lasting influences on Georgie and her “original” family.

Parental impact on their children’s lives endures and stirs. As Georgie goes searching for answers, we see how the mystery of her parents has played out on her life, and will play out on the lives of her three adult children and their three children, Thomas, Jesse, Oona.

The novel opens with two plot-driving letters. One Georgie received after her father’s death in 1945, planting seeds of hope and imagination, writing “what you’ve been told is not the whole story. There will be more news tomorrow.” The second letter arrives on Georgie’s 70th birthday, when the novel opens, inviting her to the camp, raising hopes tomorrow has finally come.

Thomas, Georgie’s precocious and imaginative thirteen-year-old grandson, shares center stage with this matriarch. He’s her sidekick, her soul mate, her staunchest defender. He’s been living with Georgie and his mother, Rosie, the older of Georgie’s two daughters, for the past two years. Venus, her Tarot-reading younger daughter, is a minor character, though her offbeat choice of fortune-telling reinforces the imagination theme. It’s also consistent with the strangeness of Georgie’s “very strange” plan to relive the past to get to the bottom of a double tragedy that’s resurfaced decades later.

Thomas is the one who’ll grab your heart and squeeze it. Wise beyond his years, gifted and sensitive, most notably depicted in four, interspersed chapters titled The Memoirs of Thomas Davis (for publication).

Rosie thinks the summer assignment is ridiculous since Thomas is still at an age when “nothing has happened.” Georgie disagrees, saying “childhood has happened.”

Thomas’ memoirs serve two purposes – one for him and one for us. He hopes Georgie’s planned trip, dubbed “Planned Coincidences,” will be the vehicle for telling a tall tale his classmates will envy, ending the bullying that started after he lost his father and developed a stutter. Oh, how we ache for this sweet boy, abandoned by death and then because he’s different. Thomas is so smart, speaks like an adult, but he doesn’t want to go to school anymore. Injustice, the cruelty of childhood bullying, like all the subtle prose, sends powerful messages.

Georgie may be courageous, but the discovery journey she’s concocted, including dragging most of her family along, is crazy. A heroine, but this chilling “reenactment” trip will put her loved ones at risk.

Everyone is supposed to arrive at the notorious camp on the exact month and day Georgie lost her parents. We begin to sense history repeating itself, starting with vulnerable ages. Georgie lost her parents at four; her son Nicholas lost his father at four. In 2008, it might be his four-year-old daughter Oona’s turn. Something sinister is lurking in the ghostly Wisconsin chapters.

Coincidences build suspensefully as Georgie insists her crew replicate the same mode of transport William, Josie, and she took, paddling up the mighty Bone River to arrive at the camp by canoe. Yet all are novice canoeists, at best. They’re to be met by 77-year-old Roosevelt, who wrote the invitational letter that also said he’s the only person alive who was at the camp in ‘41, opening Pandora’s box.

Thomas’ intermittent memoirs summarize and illuminate what we’ve been reading several chapters earlier. We’re glad to have them to confirm some details intentionally not spelled out. But when we reach the last pages of his memoirs – the ending – meant to clarify the murder, this time we’re not so sure we have all the news we need. Thomas’ conclusion adheres to Georgie’s: “Imagination is the truth.” The reader must decide whether to trust that, or feel cleverly deceived by this crafty novel.

Nicholas is the character whose voice sets the edgy, atmospheric, suspicious tone versus Georgie’s confidence and Thomas’ trust. He speaks for the rest of the family who unwillingly went on the trip. His antsy, disinterested fifteen-year-old son Jesse is present but not his wife, who has a legitimate reason not to be there as she’s acting in Othello at the Folger Theatre, a DC landmark dedicated to all things Shakespeare, dropping more subtle clues.

Nicholas also has a justifiable excuse for not going as he’s being taken away from his campaign duties working for presidential candidate Barack Obama, again tinging the prose with hope, only to bump up against our racial history. Alarm bells keep sounding off about history repeating itself.

While there’s not much more news I can give you without spoiling the mystery, a few other things to consider:

Josie’s parents were anti-Semitic. So was the camp in ‘41 with its sign declaring “No dogs. No Jews.”

Note William was Jewish. He left his small, tight-knit village in Lithuania (again, community matters) when Europe was a hotbed of anti-Semitism, coming to America to live with his uncle Irving in Boston. Soon after, he learned his mother died. Again, a profound family loss, this time for a lonely immigrant known to have a temper, though apparently softened by a mother-figure: Irving’s beautiful black cook, Clementine, Roosevelt’s mother. She too then was at Camp Minnie Ha Ha in 1941.

Clementine is wonderfully depicted non-stereotypically: an educated black woman who attended Spelman College. The author, like Georgie, is highly-educated: professor of creative writing at George Mason University outside of DC, founder of its MFA program (see for more). Might three educated women be suggesting that a well-informed citizenry could help overcome or tone down long-held prejudices borne out of a lack of understanding? Will we ever feel connected to one universal tribe?

“Georgie has a way of making everything possible,” says Thomas. So maybe you too will believe in the novel’s imagined truth.


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The Last Collection: A Novel of Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel

Fashion as a reflection of history and nationalism (pre-WWII Paris, 1938-1940; 1940s-1954 Manhattan, with a post-war return to Paris): The high-fashion industry or haute couture is so much more than meets the eye in Jeanne Mackin’s newest historical novel set mostly in Paris in the years leading up to Hitler’s invasion of this colorful city, blackening it. Color – or the lack of it – is key to the story and the refined prose that effortlessly blends fiction with engaging historical details, Mackin’s trademark (see The Beautiful American and A Lady of Good Family).

In The Last Collection, Mackin adeptly takes advantage of the rivalry and stark differences between two leading fashion designers of the 20th century – Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli – whose clothing styles, personalities, and ideologies captured the conflicted moods and political climate in the lead-up to the Paris Occupation.

Ironic how Coco Chanel is still fabulously known for her elegant, smart black-and-white designs, whereas Schiap (as her friends called her; cool, intimidating Coco essentially friendless) is barely known outside fashion circles, though considered the more innovative and artistic. Her flamboyant-often-bordering-on-“bizarre” creations inspired by her friendships with Surrealist artists like Salvador Dali.

Coco Chanel silhouette by Marion Golsteijn [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Elsa is the designer we come to admire. Generous, fun-loving, bold, and openly anti-fascist (though pro-Communist), she refused to cuddle up with the Nazis like Coco, a Nazi sympathizer and mistress, later revealed to be a spy. Two larger-than-life women who couldn’t be more opposite, yet both “very driven” and “very successful.” They left their marks on fashion, also “politics. And of course, love. The three primaries, like the primary colors.”

Those colors – blue, red, and yellow – form the novel’s three parts. One-page prologues introduce each part’s titled color, defined emotionally and historically. Mackin understands color so keenly you’ll wonder if she’s also a painter like her primary character, Lily.

Lily is the fictional go-between the real Schiap and Coco. She sets an overall melancholy tone to the prose, befitting those complicated times.

Blue defines Part I, “the most suggestive of paradox.” Despite impending war, late 1930s Paris was still holding onto its joie de vivre, seen in the legendary cafes, dance clubs, parties, follies, balls. People were ignoring or denying what was swirling around them as Germany invaded Poland, then Czechoslovakia. Mackin’s finely-tuned prose is remarkably disciplined. She doesn’t overwrite gay Paris, as a dark cloud was moving toward the City of Light.

Paris, then, is painted as a conflicted city, like Blue, the “color of longing and sadness, and yet it is also the the color of joy and fulfillment.” Lily personifies the sad, longing, nostalgic shade of blue, though Paris eventually re-awakens her.

The prose stays honed-in, even in Part II, Red, the unequivocal “color of love and passion” because red also means blood. So we continue to feel the uncertainty, anxiety, protracted waiting despite the happiness characters find as the onslaught is coming.

Part III, Yellow, is a color that warns and cries for help as fear bubbles to the surface. Defined also as the color of the Star of David Jews were forced to wear to separate them, determine their fate, the angst bursts as war descends on Paris.

Characters exemplify colors and themes. Like Paris, they’re also conflicted, complicated, entangled:

Lily: 1954 Lily opens the novel. She’s forty, working at the Manhattan gallery of a tremendously important art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, one of the Jewish characters. He (and his family) saved precious art stolen by the Nazis. Late 1930s Lily comes to know him in Paris, after she leaves a dreary existence in England teaching art to girls with compromised health at a boarding school her brother-in-law, a doctor, also works. Begrudgingly, he helped Lily get back on her feet securing her the job; no familial love as he blames her for the death of his brother, Allen. Lily accepts his scorn as she cannot forgive herself either for her role in some kind of an accident. You’ll learn what it is, later reminding us of the tremendous bravery of people during wartime.

Lily’s grief, Allen gone two years, is still so raw she hasn’t been able to pick up a paintbrush. She’s a fine art teacher we’re told by way of a former, now fully healthy student Gogo, Schiap’s real daughter. Nicknamed presumably for her flightiness, she’s always on the go, especially to the French Riviera’s yachting lifestyle. Schiap’s motherly love and protection exceeds her passionate career ambitions, one reason we like her so much. She seems to be the only one seriously preparing for the war that’s coming.

Charly: Lily leaves England when she receives an urgent telegram from her brother Charly saying he needs her. Lily adores “the handsomest man in Paris,” which gets him in trouble with women. The two were orphaned young, raised by an aunt in New York, so they depend on each other.

From the start, the prose is imbued with color, sometimes also referencing an artist’s work. Picture Charly picking Lily up at a famed Paris cafe in a “blue Isotta Roadster,” the shade of blue “Gauguin used to paint the Tahitian lagoons.”

Ania: Beautiful, graceful, and wealthy through a miserable marriage, fittingly dressed in Coco’s couture, is the woman Charly has fallen deeply in love with. Her personal life is a mess, so he needs a chaperone to be seen with her. Dangerous as she’s also having an affair with a high-ranking, historical German officer, and she’s Jewish. (Her parents live in Poland, the country Hitler invaded next.) Charly plans to take Ania to the ball of another historical figure, Elsie de Wolfe, so Lily needs a gown. She prefers Schiap’s colors as underneath her sadness is an artist who loves color.

Schiap: Takes Lily under her wings, expecting her to watch over Gogo and keep tabs on her nemesis Coco. One-by-one, she gifts Lily her designs to “armor” her, be her “good-luck charm,” fueling Coco’s bottomless jealousy as Ania starts wearing Schiap too, signaling how torn her loyalties are.

Coco: Lily connects Ania to Schiap but it’s Ania who opens the door for Lily to meet Coco, who’s flirting with having an affair with the same powerful German officer Ania is. Lily also meets his quiet driver, a minor character until he plays a vital role in the primary plot-line: whom to trust, whom to befriend, whom to love, how to survive. Coco is awfully alone despite her fame and fortune, enabling Lily to relate to both designers.

Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage: Head of German propaganda, intimate with Hitler’s plans. Mixed up with Ania, eyed by Coco, he’s one of many historical characters who frequent the Paris Ritz, where Coco lives in “luxury and privacy.” Here is where Lily feels the “desperation of people who sense there is much, too much to lose.” People who understand they’ll need to take sides before the war reaches them.

It’s fascinating how Mackin unfolds Coco and Schiap. Coco grew up extremely poor in an orphanage, suggesting her designs were a nod “to the subdued colors of austere orphanage life.” Schiap’s rich Roman family gave her a lust for a vibrant life.

Schiap believed “fashion is art, not just craft.” Likewise, Jeanne Mackin’s canvas expresses more than the skills of her craft. Artistically, she chooses three colors for her palette and focus, enabling her prose to communicate the multi-hued emotions, loyalties, and atmosphere during a multi-faceted time in France’s history.


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Pickle’s Progress 2

A soulless marriage – implications for the soul of a city and a nation (Manhattan, presumably present day): Mammon is a word art and architecture critic for The Washington Post Philip Kennicott used to characterize Manhattan’s newest, “hated” architectural behemoth, Hudson Yards, writing it “exacerbates the worst tendencies of a city that seems hellbent on erasing anything distinctive or humane in its built environment.”

Mammon is a perfect word to summarize how you’ll feel about Marcia Butler’s three flawed, unhappy, coarse characters who make up an entangled marriage trio: an unlikable couple, Karen and Stan McArdle, and Stan’s identical-looking twin brother Pickle. They’ll get under your skin in this sizzling debut novel.

I looked up the meaning of mammon – intensifying greed and wealth to a debasing influence – but didn’t have to since the Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist goes on to equate it to a vulgar mess. Like the trio.

You don’t have to like these characters to like what Butler has crafted. In fresh prose, she shows a vivid knowledge of Manhattan infused with her range of music and art sensibilities. Prose she contrasts with sarcasm, exasperation, anger, deceit to depict stuck, caustic, conflicted, hungry characters. Pickle is the most excessive abuser of profanity, but they’re all debased in one way or another, challenging us to examine what lies beneath all this vitriol?

The married McArdles are crass and deeply troubled but work as a power couple in a powerhouse city. An upper-class architectural team catering to rich New Yorkers, whose firm is cleverly located in the Lipstick Building, named for its shape, now infamously known as the place where Bernard Madoff ripped off billions in a scandalous Ponzi scheme.

For a city on the verge of losing the unique character of many beloved neighborhoods, a lost marriage serves as a microcosm for what many lament is a vanishing city. Greed and wealth hellbent on erasing iconic historical buildings and places, forcing out immigrants, minorities, artists who gave these neighborhoods so much color and individuality, to erect colossal, sterile environments. The novel is a voyeuristic view of a broken marriage that comes with a warning about the pervasiveness and perniciousness of excessive greed and wealth.

Pickle’s Progress reads like the work of a seasoned author. Butler is an accomplished artist in other art forms: lauded classical musician (oboe), interior designer, memoirist (The Skin Above My Knee), and documentarian whose film The Creative Imperative is due out in June. Her novel transfers these themes to a different art form.

Classical music helps Karen intuit the moods of a fourth key character: distraught, depressed Junie, who complicates these already compromised people and relationships. An emotional wreck, for an explicit reason unlike the others.

Junie is part of the dramatic opening scene: a car accident on the George Washington Bridge intersects with a suicide. Stan was driving, Karen beside him. Both drunk (as usual) and arguing (as usual) about a dinner party in New Jersey with friends they no longer had anything in common with. (They’re raising children, thankfully Stan and Karen are not, overly preoccupied with themselves and their competitive business.) Getting out of the car to inspect the damage, they spot a young woman (Junie) looking horrified on the bridge’s walkway. Her boyfriend has just jumped over the bridge. This is the moment their sad worlds collide.

Karen insists helpless Junie temporarily move in with them, into the upscale-decorated basement/garden level of their four-story architectural beauty, a brownstone on the posh Upper East Side. “Sneaky” and “pushy,” Karen seizes on the idea of having Junie buffer their bitter marriage knowing full well her presence will agitate an already agitated Stan. Junie ends up consenting, soon borrowing their classical musical collection, which resounds to the kitchen-level floor, further stressing out Stan.

But first Stan must call Pickle to fix things (as he’s done since childhood) before the police show up and discover he’s drunk. Pickle will rescue him, as a veteran of the NYC police force. Arriving in minutes, you might assume these twins are close. How could they be when their mother made sure Pickle never overshadowed her blatantly favored son who needed protecting. No accident Pickle opted for a gritty job protecting New Yorkers, a far cry from Stan’s uppity circle.

Childhood influences and abuse are essential to unraveling a trio mixed up in secrets and egregious behaviors debasing themselves. Disentangling this messy, sorry crew makes for fascinating character studies, open to interpretation. How did they get to the unwanted places they all find themselves in?

If it weren’t for reviews of the author’s memoir about her abusive childhood, we might not pay close enough attention to its impact on Pickle’s and Karen’s life, victims of reneged parental responsibilities and chronic abuse.

All three were raised by single-parents. The brothers by a conniving mother. Karen by a despicable father; a mother who deserted her and her younger sister. Both parents left indelible marks. Pickle has a hidden, softer side he barely shows, masked by his crudeness and slovenliness. Karen, a “cold strategist,” is “fiercely devoted” to her mother’s mantras to “always, always, go for the money” and “be beautiful.”

That she is, looking ten years younger than her forty-two-year-old self. Stan is somewhere in mid-life. A mistake to chalk up his crisis to a mid-life one. Tormented by demons, for starters he needs treatment to ease his obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Karen leaves creative design to temperamental “genius” Stan, runs everything else, making Stan look much better than he is. Abnormally fixated on organizing his life down to color-coordinating his socks and outfits, spices lined up in the kitchen, he’s unable to function in chaos, ironically causing it. We don’t feel empathy for him, maybe we should, but he’s so downright oppressive and irritable with everyone and couldn’t care less.

Even The Doodles – a gorgeous, impossible-not-to-love, very expensive, designer dog breed can’t find love from his unloving owners, so he quickly attaches to Junie. Dogs know when they’re not loved.

Golden Doodle, via Pixabay

An interesting element aids the plot:the topic of identical twins. Stan and Pickle share “Clark Gable” movie-star looks. Might that confuse one’s sexual attractions?

From Gone With the Wind, via Wikimedia

Butler further ups the ante with the trio’s dangerous real estate arrangement, yet to materialize but festering. Pooling their funds, all own a share of the coveted brownstone. Not a fair playing field on a policeman’s salary, but life hasn’t been fair to Pickle. (He deserves the title’s namesake.) He’s supposed to move into the upper two floors but Karen keeps stalling on the renovations. Perhaps Junie is another delay tactic? Why?

Pickle is not at all happy about waiting around (Stan seems oblivious) once Junie moves in, uncharacteristically attracted to her. He being a one-night-stand kind of guy, hardened for fragile Junie who seems childlike, not twenty nine years old, though she appreciates fine art and music. Pickle perceives her as “pristine,” as if she’ll wipe his slate clean.

The novel reads as if we’re watching a sobering movie involving a train wreck we sense is coming if things don’t drastically change. They do, but not how we expected.

Odd but revealing, the couple binge watch another family soap opera, Dallas. Beautiful, seductive actors and actresses starred in that long-running TV show that spanned the late 70s/80s/early 90s, revitalized in 2012. Seems we can’t get enough of the lust that has transformed too much of the city. A melancholy ode begging to preserve as much of its character left.

Can these characters be saved? Is Pickle’s progress a “breakdown or a breakthrough”? Will America breakdown or breakthrough in 2020?


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The Girl He Used to Know

A tender, timeless love story (Chicago 2001, 1991 backstory): Bet you’ll love this pleasure-to-read novel. Sensitive writer, sensitive characters, sensitively rendered romance.

Tracey Garvis Graves dedicates her new novel to “anyone who’s felt like they didn’t belong.” She could have also dedicated it to everyone who’s wished for a second chance, be it love or otherwise. The Girl He Used to Know encompasses both.

Great title. Another, less catchy, could have been The Woman She’s Become. On page 4, the protagonist, Annika, expresses the dual narratives of Then and Now: a “desire to replace the memories of the girl he used to know with the woman I’ve become.”

Structured so we can compare these two Annika’s – the more confident one the novel opens with in 2001 when she’s in her thirties, to her 1991 twenties-self attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a few hours outside of Chicago where she now lives. Over this ten-year span we see how Annika has changed, developmentally and socially, though some parts of her haven’t changed much. Not because she still has a neurological condition and is still head-turning beautiful. But because she’s stayed real and beautiful on the inside.

Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy
By John Mathew Smith & [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Annika Rose has an exotic name that matches her “stark beauty.” Sharp cheekbones, big blue eyes, blond hair “almost white,” modeled on another gorgeous soul: Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, who shockingly perished in a plane crash in 1999 along with her sister and husband, beloved by all, John F. Kennedy Jr.

If you know anyone diagnosed as high-functioning on the autism spectrum, you’ll recognize Annika. Forget labels, stereotyping. Rather, it’s how Graves shows and tells us what it feels like to be Annika, giving her characteristic traits yet shaping her not comically as other novels have done but deeper, compassionately.

Annika is the vulnerable star of this literary show. Two other characters are her stellar supporting cast: Janice and Jonathan, who accepted her in college, made her feel for the first time in her life she did belong, watched her back, loved her. We could all use a Janice and a Jonathan in our lives. One a blessing; two miraculous for a girl who felt “all my life I’ve been an embarrassment to myself.”

The formula for why the novel sings: pitch-perfect dialogue; Annika’s refreshing honesty; Annika’s learning the importance of accepting herself; the extent true love can go; and smart, informed writing that briskly alternates between two narrators’ perspectives (Annika’s voice and Jonathan’s) from two time perspectives.

If it weren’t for Janice, the best roommate in the world, Annika was paired up with freshman year, Annika probably would have dropped out by the end of the first week, since she almost did. Janice’s perceptiveness and kindness saved Annika, steering her to two things she loved most: chess and animals.

Chess club led Annika to Jonathan, assigned to play chess with her during senior year. Chess and volunteering at an animal clinic sustained her; environments where she could block out the noise in her head brought on by overwhelming social anxieties. Chess was a place she felt “I almost fit in”; animals needed her and gave unconditional love. The victim of bullying (home-schooled by seventh grade), no surprise she “simply preferred the company of animals over most humans.”

On page 10, Annika tells us “her brain does not work like other people’s. I think in black-and-white. Concrete. Not abstract.” Literal thinking interferes with understanding the nuances and unspoken meanings of social cues, norms. Back then, Janice and Jonathan helped her navigate. Now Janice lives in New Jersey, married and the mother of a young child (still Annika’s best friend), while Annika and Jonathan haven’t connected since graduation. That’s when he moved to NYC for an investment banking job; she promised to follow him there but didn’t. To work through losing the person who was her “everything,” Annika now has a therapist named Tina talking her through putting oneself in someone else’s shoes. Had she been able to do that with Jonathan back then, maybe things would have turned out differently.

Had he continued to put her needs over his perhaps they’d have stayed together, since “no one had loved me as fiercely and unconditionally as she did,” says Jonathan.

Jonathan made the wrong assumptions. Through a couple of twists of fate we don’t see coming – particularly towards the gripping ending – Graves makes sure we get her message about making assumptions.

The opening scene resonates. What would you do if you bumped into your first love, your one and only love? Annika assumed Jonathan was still living in New York, so what’s he doing in Chicago? Caught off guard, yet she’s been preparing for a moment like this, a second chance.

The burning question is whether Jonathan wants that too. Does he still care enough to be willing to push aside hurt/angry feelings after Annika failed to show up? Coming off of a painful divorce, is he still up for “peeling back Annika’s layers”? Ready for another serious relationship?

One thing that might help Jonathan is to see the progress Annika has made. Will he be struck by her bold move to a large city for someone extremely stressed by crowds? Will he note something must have changed now that she tells him she’s working in a busy setting – the main branch of the Chicago Public Library (books always a solace)?

If that doesn’t catch his attention, what does is she’s no longer dressed in long skirts two sizes larger for her “perfectly proportioned body,” so she couldn’t feel the texture of fabric touching her skin. Some sensations unnerved her, especially the sensation of someone touching her. Jonathan was the only person whose touch didn’t jar her. “His touch grounded me and made me feel like nothing bad could ever happen.” Today the woman he meets is dressed to accentuate her femininity. Will he desire to touch her again, intimately?

Annika used to be someone who couldn’t bear people entering her “personal space.” Sound familiar? The novel drops us right into the Me Too era.

Jonathan was initially attracted to Annika’s beauty, but once he appreciates the ease he feels around her, she becomes “much more than a pretty face.” What does that say about getting to know people with disabilities who might not be as physically attractive?

Annika’s conversation used to be simplistic, straightforward, as she didn’t have any filters or experience with men. “Do you want to kiss me”? “Were you flirting with me?” she innocently asks, to which Jonathan charmingly responds: “I was trying to. I thought I was halfway decent about it, but now I’m not so sure.”

Gentle and patient, he teaches Annika how to make love, assuring her he’d never hurt her. Ironically, she hurt him.

Back then it was impossible for Annika to gaze into someone’s eyes, even Jonathan’s. If he and we could see her now: also working with children, interestingly teaching them how to act (in theater) and playwriting, we imagine her smiling and looking straight at them. They love and accept her for the authentic, loving person she is. (She also continues to care for animals.)

Learning to accept others, see their gifts. Be real, honest. Be kind to and look out for others. Why is this so hard for us to do in 2019? An extraordinary love story with implications for all.


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